Too often discussion about sustainable development carries a negative weight, whereby all the things we aren’t doing form the center of attention. In that context, I find it very empowering to open up the discourse to the realms of gratitude and actively take the time to recognise positive initiatives already existing and emerging on the ground. Celebration and recognition are key and psychologically beneficial parts of the process of innovating a cultural transition towards sustainability.
A central tenant of resilience and positive psychology, celebration is a crucial and underexplored tool for engagement around environmental change. As Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town Movement, has frequently stressed, celebration and the power of a positive vision (more on positive visioning in a forthcoming post!) are crucial for enabling us to move from a narrative of “going nowhere” to one of “going somewhere”. For more on the role of celebration in sustainability transitions, I’d recommend listening to this interesting podcast.
With this in mind, I was absolutely delighted to be approached by ECO-UNESCO with a request to participate as an expert judge at the ECO-UNESCO Young Environmentalist Awards (YEA) regional competition. YEA is an all-Ireland environmental awards programme that recognises and rewards young people who are actively involved in positive efforts at pro-environmental change, from raising environmental awareness to innovative projects that aim to improve the environment. Excited about the opportunity to take part in an important celebration of already existing positive initiatives for change being pioneered by Ireland’s young people, I happily accepted the invitation.
As the decision makers of tomorrow, providing opportunities by which young people can be actively involved in issues and decisions that will affect them is a crucial element of the change process. One of the most effective ways to engage young people in this manner is to harness their own creativity by providing opportunities for them to participate in creative education and real action for environmental change, which is exactly what the ECO-UNESCO Young Environmentalist Award program seeks to do.
The YEA programme is a fun and exciting way for young people to become actively involved in a self-directed environmental project, with the process following a number of stages. First, students come together to form an environmental action project. Here a group of young people collaborates to identify and take action on an environmental issue of their choice, whereby the aim is to have a positive impact on one’s local or global community. Second, upon developing and implementing a project, students apply to participate in their regional ‘Eco-Den’ challenge, ‘Eco-Dens’ are regional Dragon Den style judging events where YEA groups can pitch their ideas and project to a panel of regional expert judges. Eco-Dens provide an opportunity for YEA groups to showcase their innovative ideas and network with other groups and educators in their region. They furthermore offer an opportunity for young people to develop and practice their presentation and public speaking skills as well as develop confidence in their role as leaders of environmental change.
The final stage is a Showcase and Award Ceremony in Dublin. All finalists of regional Eco-Dens travel to Dublin to showcase their work at the YEA Showcase and Awards Ceremony, usually held in May. Over the past few years, each year 80 final projects have been displayed and over 700 young people, youth leaders, teachers and civil society actors have attended. A number of high profile guests, including President Michael D. Higgins, Mary Robinson and UNESCO Dignitaries have also supported and attended the event. A crucial focus of the event is interactive and peer-to-peer learning; educational zones and guest exhibitors feature throughout as spaces where young people can learn, discuss and debate key environmental issues and concerns in areas such as biodiversity, waste, climate change, communicating environmental issues and innovation.
Previous Award Ceremony in Dublin
The regional Eco-Den competition for Connacht was held in the Institute for Lifecourse and Society at NUI Galway on Wednesday the 11th April. Throughout the day, myself and the two others judges (Elaine Nelvin of Eco-UNESCO and Fiona Coen, the Environmental Education Officer for Galway City Council) were presented with 16 regional YEA projects by students groups who had travelled from throughout Connacht to participate in the event. A huge variety and diversity of themes were covered including, waste, diversity, climate, eco-art and innovation.
Blown away by the sheer passion, dedication and creativity exhibited by the young people, I left the day feeling hopeful about the future! Reflecting back on my own childhood, growing up in the late 80s and 90s Ireland, opportunities for environmental education and engagement looked very different relative to the landscape today. Anyone of my generation will remember the nature walks that comprised the totality of our engagement with environmental issues! The representation of nature portrayed was one in which nature was considered something separate to us as human beings – something out there that operated in a realm distinct from culture and economics. Beyond that there was little consideration or discussion of society-environment issues or the impact humanity is having on our planet. In the context of the environmental challenges facing humankind over the coming decades, it’s very heartening to have the opportunity to be a part of Eco-UNESCO’s work in providing opportunities for young people to demonstrate innovation and engagement around environmental change. Most of the groups cited the Eco-UNESCO Youth Summit as the crucial catalyst for their involvement in the projects, highlighting the importance of peer-to-peer learning, exchange and networking in creating a culture of change.